Number 6 – Live in Tokyo (the 6 of Clubs) – Part 4
It’s always the first sentence that bugs me when writing a new post. How on Earth am I going to get you interested enough to read on? I haven’t yet found the answer, but read on anyway, there’s some fun stuff in this one. I recently spent a week in Osaka, which was pretty awesome; once again I’m not going to do a rundown day by day of what you should be doing, because if you visit you’ll want to make your own itinerary etc. but what follows are some great recommendations, and what I did whilst I was there.
I arrived late on Wednesday afternoon after a bus ride from Hiroshima. I know that a lot of people who visit Japan will probably opt for the JR pass in order to navigate their way around, which is great, but because I have a working holiday visa, I wasn’t eligible to get one of these passes. However, it has sort of presented its own opportunities. By now, you’re probably aware that I like to save money where possible, and I tend to research how to make the most of my money whilst travelling. Because I didn’t have the JR pass, I wasn’t limited to just the 7/14 days that they are valid for. I also think I have travelled everywhere I wanted to go a lot cheaper than if I had bought the JR pass, so do look at bus travel, especially overnight travel. Anyway, I arrived in Osaka and at first was a little disillusioned at what greeted me. It basically just looked like another city, and by now I am kind of bored of the generic Japanese city. I’m happy to say though that it didn’t stay that way. I arrived at my hostel, the Peace House Suzunami (which I would highly recommend for value and friendliness), checked in and headed out to explore my local area by night. The hostel is near Tennoji station, which although a little far out from the hustle and bustle of Dotonburi and Amerikamura, was a great location in terms of the nearby park, zoo, subway stations and various other amenities, whilst still being suburban enough to relax. I didn’t do a whole lot that night other than get some food and wander a little.
On my second day, I headed to the Osaka Science museum. For those of you that know me, you will know I have a huge interest in magic and its history, and in particular the methods of old charlatans etc. Osaka Science museum was chosen with this in mind; they have on display a replica of the famous Osaka Gakutensoku, an early 20th century automaton, and the first robot built in Japan. Although not actually used for magic or psychic demonstrations, it’s still an extremely important piece and is a mechanical masterpiece of its time. The original went missing whilst on tour in Germany in the 1930s and has never been recovered, but the replica is on show here. Every hour it comes to life and shows off some of what the original was able to do. The rest of the museum was pretty cool too, and even though almost everything is in Japanese and made for children rather than adults, it’s still a lot of fun. There are a lot of interactive exhibits, so it’s a great opportunity to switch off the adult for a few hours and just have a laugh! It’s also pretty cheap at just 400 yen. After here I visited Amerikamura. This is basically a set of streets with vintage and hipster stores and a few bars and restaurants. It is apparently styled after American shopping streets and there are a lot of cool, young groups of Japanese kids at the height of fashion. It’s a cool place to hang out, so after wandering around it by day and heading back to my hostel, I actually came back here in the evening to check it out by night. Osaka is known mostly for its food, and whilst in Hiroshima, a traveller I met had told me that I had to try Takoyaki whilst there. I had heard about a semi-famous Takoyaki restaurant that is often featured on Japanese television called Kougaryu so I made a beeline for it. Takoyaki is a round fried ball of wheat flour with a small piece of Octopus inside, and is pretty damn tasty. With food and beer in hand, I sat in the square in the middle of Amerikamura and took in the atmosphere. After here I headed to a really cool craft beer bar called Craft Beer Works KAMIKAZE. They had a great selection of local and international beers, and if that’s your thing then you have to try it!
My third day started early, like 5am early. Visiting Osaka in March meant that I was there whilst the national Sumo championships were on. I had really wanted to attend a sumo tournament but when I arrived in Japan I found that the entire tournament was already sold out. It wasn’t until a few days before getting to Osaka that a local told me the secret… Each day, 200 tickets are left unreserved, on a first come first served basis. The tickets go on sale at 7am, but in order to be guaranteed a ticket you need to be there at 5.30am. I arrived at 5.40 and was already 87th in line. There are sumo tournaments throughout the year in different cities around Japan, so although you might not be able to use this information for Osaka until next year, you will be able to use it in other cities. You buy your ticket and then have to queue again until the arena doors open. At this point you need to head to the unreserved section and fight for the best seat. Once you are sat down put some of your belongings on the seat. It will now be around 8.30am. Bouts don’t start until around 10.30, and the major leagues don’t begin until 2pm, so now you have chance to return to your hostel for another hour of sleep. Make sure you do this, otherwise you will be far too tired to enjoy the best bouts later. Here is where it gets interesting. Aim to arrive back at the arena for around 12pm. Upon arrival you will see that bouts are going on, but those reserved seats ringside? They’re all empty. The reason for this is that a lot of people only come for the major leagues starting from 2pm. This is why I said to arrive back at lunchtime. Until these seats get taken by the reserved customer, they are free to use. Which means even though you have only paid for an unreserved seat, you can now go and sit ringside and watch the sumo. This is an absolutely incredible experience, you are literally close enough to hear them breathing, and the whole tradition that comes with each bout is something you need to experience close up. Of course, as 2pm approaches you will probably be moved from your ringside seat as paying customers arrive, but you still got a once in a lifetime experience, for 2000yen! The day finishes around 6pm, but the final bouts in the top league are just something else entirely. This is where the champions of the tournament turn up; they are the last to wrestle, and by this point the arena is packed to the rafters and the atmosphere is electric. Check this website to find out when and where the next tournaments are, and please try to get to one!
Over the next few days I spent some more time taking in Osaka and also heading out on a few trips further afield. I said when I arrived that I was a little disillusioned, but to be honest after spending some time here I was pleasantly surprised. Osaka is a much friendlier city than Tokyo; it’s smaller, meaning it’s easier to navigate, and it feels a little more like what I was expecting Tokyo to be like. The bright lights, the hustle and bustle, but on a smaller scale. And the food is just incredible. You could just spend days there trying everything. I of course tried Osaka’s version of Okonomi Yaki, which was great, and also some of the famous Rikuro’s cheesecake. There are also some great all you can eat restaurants and if you haven’t tried it before you need to try Shabu Shabu with a group of friends. There are a lot of places here that you can try it. You are given a pan of miso soup, strips of meat and vegetables and you cook your own food according to your taste. It’s just incredible, and apparently when I get home, Sarah and I are going to have to make this for the family! I think I’m pretty much going to spend the first few weeks back home just cooking everything I’ve had on this trip!
As for trips further afield, Koyasan is definitely recommended. You can catch a train from Namba station that takes around 2 hours, delivering you to the top of Mt Koya. This destination is extremely important to Japanese Buddhists, and has been the site of a number of shrines and temples since 805AD. Wear warm clothes if you go here; you are at the top of a mountain, out of the city, and it shows. You can buy the Koyasan world heritage ticket from Namba station costing around 2800 yen which includes a return ticket to Koya, the cable car up the mountain and unlimited bus rides around the town. The highlight for me was a 2km path on the route to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the person who set up the first temple here. Along the route to Okunoin temple, there are around 200,000 tombstones, from common people to prominent monks and feudal lords wishing to be closer to Kobo Daishi. It’s a really surreal place and after spending so much time in cities it was strangely spiritual here. The trees are humongous and there is a beautiful silence as you walk the path. You can read more about the attractions on offer at Koyasan here, but the journey is well worth it.
From Osaka I travelled to Kyoto, but combined my travel day with a trip to Nara. I would recommend doing it this way, whether you are travelling from Osaka to Kyoto or the other way around. It’s a cost effective and time effective way of visiting Nara, as to be honest there isn’t a whole lot to do here. Doing it this way also saves you some train fare, which again doesn’t matter if you have the JR pass, I’m just giving you options. You will no doubt have heard of the Nara deer, and they are pretty hilarious. There are a lot of them, they aren’t timid at all, and they will eat anything, including your map! I learnt that the hard way. You can spend a little time around these guys, getting the necessary selfies etc., but I highly recommend visiting the Todaiji temple. Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan, and thus has a lot of significant historical monuments. Todaiji is one of these, being one of Japan’s most famous temples. I know I’m a little templed out (ok, very templed out) but this was a cool one. The main hall, the Daibutsuden is the largest wooden building in the world, despite the current reconstruction only being two thirds of the original size. Inside, the hall houses a massive statue of Buddha, sitting 15m tall on a lotus flower. It really is quite incredible, and considering it dates back to 752AD, that’s pretty spectacular. It’s also worth a walk around Nara park, and also around Naramachi, which is a sort of shopping district between the station and the park.
Overall, Osaka was a really cool stop. There is a good blend of sightseeing spots and opportunities to just soak up the atmosphere of the city. The nightlife is pretty decent, and the vibe is a lot friendlier than that of Tokyo. I’ve heard a few people say there isn’t much to do in Osaka, but I disagree. There are lots of great spots around the city, and it’s a great base to explore the region of Kansai, including not only what I’ve mentioned above but also Kobe, day trips to Kyoto and Hiroshima (If you have the JR pass), and other areas as well. My next stop is Kyoto for a little bit of tradition, and hopefully a different type of city, finally!